Mental health evaluation ordered in 'exorcism' slayings

A Montgomery County judge on Friday ordered a mental health evaluation for a woman accused of killing two toddlers in what police said was an attempt at an exorcism.

Monifa Sanford, 21, is being held without bond in the Montgomery County jail, charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Her housemate, Zakieya Avery, the mother of the two children, also is being held without bond and is charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Both women also are charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder because they are accused of attacking Avery's two older children. Police have said the assaults last Friday inside a Germantown townhouse were part of an attempted exorcism, and said the women described themselves as "demon assassins."

"It is incumbent on both sides to explore the apparent, significant mental health issues involved," said David Felsen, an attorney for Sanford.

In court Tuesday, Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy asked District Judge Gary Everngam to order a mental health evaluation of Avery, which the judge did.

According to McCarthy and police officials, Avery and Sanford told detectives they'd become convinced that evil spirits had invaded Avery's youngest child, Norell. They attacked him with a knife, McCarthy said. The women also told detectives that the spirits started skipping from older child to older child, and they followed the spirits by attacking the children. The women also claimed the spirits then jumped into Sanford's body, and she too had be attacked, according to McCarthy.

There could potentially be two levels of mental health issues in the case. The first is whether the women know enough about their surroundings to take part in court proceedings – whether they are legally competent to stand trial. The next step would be if their attorneys file pleas of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.

It's too early to say whether either or both factors apply. The women could be judged legally competent and could have known what they were allegedly doing was wrong.

As the hearing Friday is expected to make clear, the legal teams in the case are starting to take shape. On the prosecution side is McCarthy, the county's elected top prosecutor. He personally takes one or two homicide cases a year. By chance, he was up in his office's rotation when the bodies were discovered. Working with him is the chief of McCarthy's major crimes division, Peter Feeney.

Representing Avery is Brian Shefferman, head public defender in Montgomery County. Shefferman's office also is representing Sanford. But the office has a general policy that it doesn't represent two co-defendants because possible conflicts of interest can arise. So they hire private attorneys for such instances – in this case Felsen.

Felsen said it was far too early in the case to comment on whether he would pursue an insanity defense. He said his client had never been arrested before last week.

"There is no hint of prior criminal involvement," said Felsen, adding that Sanford's family is still trying to make sense of the charges against her. "The family is supportive and understands the significance of Monifa's circumstances," Felsen said.